The Bill Willingham Interview (part three of four)

Posted by on April 29th, 2010 at 12:06 AM


Originally recorded in 2006 for The Comics Journal #278.

Part OnePart Two ♦ Part Three ♦ Part Four

Sequence from the short-lived Coventry, ©1996 Bill Willingham.



DEPPEY: After Ironwood was finished, you began working another series, Coventry. Was there a genesis to Coventry above and beyond just wanting to do a non-porn fantasy series?

WILLINGHAM: [Laughs.] Well, I hope so.

DEPPEY: What was the genesis of Coventry?

WILLINGHAM: I’m certain that figured into it, at least as one of the main ingredients is a non-porn fantasy. Just the kind of things I was interested in writing, I suppose. Once again, it’s like all of those themes and backgrounds that I keep drawing upon in all the stories were coming to a head, and I wanted to do a book that pleased me and that I thought that perhaps Fantagraphics would be proud to publish. I really liked my relationship with Fantagraphics, the people there, even though we probably disagreed on everything. I wanted to continue working with them. The offers from mainstream comics were not coming. So I worked out the idea that if I’m going to do something for a small amount of money, at least to begin with, I’d better do something I’m really going to love doing, and maybe the love of doing it will help me through some of the lean times. And that’s where Coventry came up. Probably, in retrospect, I tried to do too big a story to begin with. I should have used the same concept and come up with a few more self-contained stories to begin with because I think the weightiness of the big opening saga is part of what contributed to not continuing to do it.

DEPPEY: Right. I was gonna say I don’t actually have a lot of questions for Coventry, simply because I don’t have a clear enough sense of what it was going to be about.

WILLINGHAM: Well, it was just gonna be a fictional city that included everything I felt like putting in there. The big, ongoing story, I sort of knew where it was going, but it was gonna take a long, long time to get there. At the same time, we were having the distributor wars, with Marvel self-distributing and completely screwing over the distribution system at the time, which caused terrible, terrible cash flow for all of the independents. Friendly Frank’s went under, Capital Distribution went under because of this, and Fantagraphics had been really tight in the belt during that time, which was unfortunate because that was another contributing factor to discontinuing Coventry when literally, they couldn’t afford to pay me. They could afford the up-front money, which was small for each issue, but royalties were often being delayed and I couldn’t afford it. I was looking at a situation where, if I was going to continue doing Coventry, I’d have to also get a day job, and I hadn’t had one in many years at that point and thought that that probably wasn’t a good idea.

From Coventry #3, ©1997 Bill Willingham.


DEPPEY: It’s interesting because at the moment, we’re putting together a 30th-anniversary issue of the Journal, which is focusing on the past and future as an industry and as an art form. And actually, in the text pages, Gary and I each have pieces about different portions of Direct Market history and have sort of a mini-argument going there. Whereas I claim that the combination of the Image downfall and the distributor wars was really just catastrophic across the board for the industry, Gary states that “No, it was really the black-and-white boom that hurt the independent comics and the events of the ’90s really didn’t impact smaller, independent publishers like Fantagraphics at all.”

WILLINGHAM: Well, I see Gary’s argument, and the black-and-white boom, in retrospect, was pretty horrible. The idea that people were speculating on anything that was published and people that I’d worked with, cartoonists and people I knew, were gloating at the time that “We can produce 22 or 32 pages of shit in black and white and publish it and sell 30,000 of ’em now.” At the time, I thought, “Well, that’s gonna turn around and bite us at some point,” and it inevitably did. One of my big regrets at that point is that, with Ironwood and Coventry and all that, I’m jumping on that old black-and-white bandwagon just as it sailed and, you know, you’d hardly give these things away with free medical coverage. So, some of my disdain for the black-and-white boom might be just a point of fact that I took too long to jump on that bandwagon. You know, here’s one of the problems I have with these kinds of arguments where you pick your ground and say, “It’s this.” “No, it’s this.” Usually, it’s a combination of things. Sort of, if I can use this horrible analogy, like people constantly get on George Bush for having too many reasons to go into Iraq, like the preponderance of all of them, apparently, is an illegitimate thing to do. You have to just pick one, and you picked weapons of mass destruction and “Ha ha! We gotcha because we haven’t found ’em.” You know, I imagine there’s all kind of reasons for our industry being in the sorry state it’s in. The grotesque decision on Marvel’s part to self-distribute: “Let’s capture the entire market ourselves because we’re Marvel and we can.” It was a blatant move on their part and pretty arrogantly ill-conceived. It all had its impact. All the shops, kind of as one, like the tulip speculation in the Netherlands. Eventually, everyone wakes up and realizes, “Oh my God. What have we been doing buying tons of this crap?” You know, that hurt too because, after that, you had wonderful stories coming out that you could hardly get into the shops because of the unwillingness to deal with that kind of stuff any more.

DEPPEY: So was it purely the fact that Coventry just did not sell that eventually…

WILLINGHAM: No, it was one of the mitigating factors. Plus, I’ve always really disliked my artwork and, in Coventry, I decided that if I’m gonna do this, it’s not gonna be just about meeting deadline, that I’m gonna actually try and produce each and every panel well done. There’s never gonna be a point at which, “Well, this panel’s good enough to get me to the next one, so the hell with it; I’ll just do the minimum I need to in this,” which I’d done previously in… you know, I’d drawn some DC work in the past on a case-by-case basis, and some of that stuff I’d just phone in. So I tried to do the best artwork of which I was capable in Coventry and that, of course, slowed the process way down. In some sense, it was all financial, in the sense of sitting down and doing the math with myself. I realized that I couldn’t possibly produce this quick enough to make a living at it without having to get a real job. It was mitigated by the fact that cash flow was real troublesome during these times when Capital went under… owing so much money, etc. So lots of things piled up, but it was fairly obvious at the time that I was going to have to delay or just discontinue doing Coventry.


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